ASH RA TEMPEL: ASH RA TEMPEL (1971)
1) Amboss; 2) Träummaschine.
In 1971, «space rock» was still in a state of infancy, associated either with the lightweight drones of the Grateful Dead or the harsher, more aggressive sound of early Pink Floyd. Hawkwind were beginning to stir things up, but had not yet turned into the comic strip monster boss of all things astral. The electronic genre was still groping its way through all the complicated knobs and switches of newfangled technological gadgets. In brief, people had not yet finished finding the proper way of communicating with faraway galaxies without leaving their home planet.
Why am I saying all this? Mostly to place this here debut album of Ash Ra Tempel in its proper historical context. With both electronic and guitar-based «astral muzak» growing faster than a Godzilla on steroids in a matter of several years, it is easy to overlook the overall significance and originality of this record, and I have always held the opinion that an understanding of how fresh a certain work of art once was actually does influence our ability to enjoy it as such, even if there is never a direct correlation.
Besides, there is also something about Ash Ra Tempel that sets it aside from everything else (even much of the band's own further output). When flexible guitar player Manuel Göttsching, bassist Hartmut Enke, and percussionist/keyboardist Klaus Schulze got together in an attempt to forge out a new mind-expanding sound, they placed the «space» component at the top of their priorities all right, but they never forgot about the «rock» aspect of it, either. The album can produce a static effect at one point and a dynamic one at another, but overall, it feels like a space journey from point A to point B, rather than a constantly looping orbit circuit, which would soon become the priority of one of Ash Ra Tempel's chief competitors — Tangerine Dream (with which Klaus Schulze actually played a brief stint in 1969-70).
Two encouraging factors are at work here. One: Klaus Schulze, who would leave the band for a solo career soon afterwards, is mostly active here as a percussionist rather than an electronic wizard, and you will be surprised at the monster drum sound he can get going when necessary, firing away on all cannons like crazy. Two: Manuel Göttsching is, by trade, a professional rock guitarist, and when he gets carried away, no amount of psychedelic echo effects on his guitar can hide the fact that he likes ecstatic, frenetic rock guitar soloing, and that he is actually good at it.
Of the two sidelong tracks (still a relative novelty in 1971), 'Amboss' is the fast and furious one, and 'Träummaschine' is the more atmospheric and relaxed, although its subtle ambience still has a dynamic aspect, and, from time to time, Göttsching and Schulze break out the kick-ass jamming mode even on the latter. Rock kind of guys, unafraid of lengthy jamming, will most likely favor 'Amboss' — if only for the reason that, at times, once the motor has been properly wound up, Ash Ra Tempel end up sounding like an eerily «astralized» version of The Who in their Live At Leeds mode: check the groove they get going around the 5:00 minute mark, or, especially, the riff that Göttsching breaks into at about 8:05 into the tune, and if you do not hear the influence of a 'Young Man Blues' in there... nah, an impossible «if».
Of course, the track has much more than that — there is a careful percussion/synthesizer build-up that leads to the main ferocious groove, there are some funky bits, some free-form soloing with multiple overdubbed tracks, and a feedback-drenched, Hendrix-inspired coda that provides the blueprint for decades of noise-rock to come. It actually helps, I think, that there are only three people engaged in this battle — it helps to keep things tight and focused, although, clearly, had Schulze and Göttsching shown less individual awesomeness on their respective instruments, the whole experience could have quickly degenerated into repetitive boredom. 'Amboss', however, is nowhere near repetitive — the guys never emulate the exact same landscape twice.
'Träummaschine', in comparison, is less immediately appealing, and, I would say, a bit overlong. The tension builds up gradually, explodes, builds up again, explodes once more, then quietly fizzles out — stuff like that might work fine in a classical symphony, but on an early space-rock album feels superfluous. But lop off eight or ten minutes off the twenty-five, and the piece will stand on its own, quite proudly, like a softer, less danger-fraught part of the same journey.
As a mostly drums-and-guitar based (Schulze's synthesizers work as occasional mood-setters here but are almost never at the center of the sound) mood-oriented astral-rock LP, Ash Ra Tempel has few rivals, and still ends up having its own individual sound after all these years. Thumbs up are automatically guaranteed — even if, at the end of the day, I would really love to have just a few more musical themes integrated inside these fourty-five minutes. Call it «the layman's wish», if you will.